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Assassin’s Creed 4 brings back fun with lovely landscapes, non-preposterous plot

Tuesday, 26th November 2013 15:00 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag recaptures the vivacity the franchise displayed with Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood. Brenna picks out two major improvements to a formula that finally feels fresh again.

After the disappointment of Assassin’s Creed 3, which sold and reviewed well but drew heavy criticism from fans, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag had the power to make or break the franchise. I tentatively believed that it would be a saviour, and as Dave has already eloquently argued, Ubisoft did a fantastic job of addressing Assassin’s Creed 3′s faults – most of the wrinkles have been ironed out of the controls and mechanics; the long boring tutorials with half your tools missing have been axed; and the loading times have been hugely reduced for both current and next-gen builds. I’m happy to call it the best Assassin’s Creed game since the first sequel, and even Pat likes it.

Since I started playing Black Flag on my PlayStation 4, sharing the occasional screenshot and video, lots of my friends have asked me if it’s worth picking up. My answer is always “It’s a lot better than Assassin’s Creed 3,” to which their reply has universally been some variation of “Good, because I really didn’t enjoy that one,” and then a long anecdote about which glitch, mission sequence, or feature put them off. As a hardcore fan of the series (Abstergo hoodie, eagle-peak hooded dressing gown, et cetera) I’m so pleased to be asked the question “Is it any good?” because it shows that positive hype is building, helping to countermand Assassin’s Creed 3′s poor reputation; I doubt any of my friends would have asked about Black Flag if they hadn’t had a glimmering that it represents a vast improvement.

Dave plays the first ten minutes of the game; spoilers, obviously.

When asked for details though, I start to flail around a bit – what exactly is it that makes Black Flag so good? The answer is sort of everything and nothing; so many systems have been fine tuned that instead of the frustrating, bland, fiddly experience of Assassin’s Creed 3, Black Flag is a sheer joy to play. Without compiling a bullet point list of all the things that I like, there are two factors which I believe make all the difference: environmental design and narrative design.

From the moment you’re first set loose on dry land in Black Flag, you’re somewhere interesting. The craggy, cliffy island Edward washes up on has multiple levels of verticality, caves, tunnels, and parallel paths. It’s laid out in such a way that you can run it in a few seconds, or spend up to an hour poking here and there, winkling out the secrets as they appear on your map. The game’s climbing and free-running systems are introduced not with laborious tutorials but simply by throwing you at a playground of them, and daring you to wonder “Can I get up there?” Yes, you can; and the gorgeous, colourful, organic design means climbing areas aren’t telegraphed by obvious patterns. The detail in each small area is astounding; imagine some artist at Ubisoft – or a team of artists, more like – carefully placing each rock, hummock of sand, tuft of grass, ambient animation, and cranny.

The first major settlement you visit, Havana, is a proper old-school Assassin’s Creed city; buildings stacked close together, lots of flat roofs, and a couple of great big religious buildings you’ll circle at least once before you figure out how to scale them. Dashing the rooftops here is a must for fans who’ve been with the Animus for some time, and such a welcome change after the broad streets and pitched roofs of the American cities in the last game.

Most of the other cities are smaller and more impermanent, but they’re also dotted with trees and points of interest, so there are more – and more varied – free-run paths than ever before. Kingston in particular stands out; it sprawls across two or three elevations, and has rivers and waterfalls. Skirting these towns to infiltrate restricted areas is great fun, as you uncover secret back paths and escape routes not featured in missions.

Add to this the unrivalled beauty of the environments – no matter the weather – and you have a setting that you long to explore, to get in and roam around in. Tracking down collectibles is far less of a chore when the environment is interesting, and areas designed for missions are carefully structured to provide direction without feeling restricted – and to give you plenty of options.

For the first time in ages, the story doesn’t keep interrupting your enjoyment of the world. The last few Assassin’s Creed games – especially Assassin’s Creed 3, but also Revelations and Brotherhood, and to a lesser degree Assassin’s Creed 2 – have been guilty of serious narrative crimes. it’s not the ridiculous sci-fi meta narrative, or the constant shoe-horning of historical figures; it’s just that Ezio and Connor, bless ‘em, don’t do much besides take orders.

Here’s the next ten minutes of Dave’s playthrough.

For the vast majority of Ezio’s adventures I seemed to be doing whatever the heck his mum, sister, or new pals wanted me to do, and Connor didn’t seem much better directed. Oh, they both had an overarching goal and ambition, but they seemed incapable of ever thinking up what to do about it. It was all, “Go meet this guy. He’ll know how to help you,” and after you’d recruited whoever it was, they’d have a whole sequence of chores for you to do, to further their own political ends and possibly mildly inconvenience the Templars. There seemed to be a huge disconnect between the elevator summary (“Assassin kills Templars, for revenge and also because they’re bad”) and the user experience (“Assassin kills loads of people and also does a lot of really dull stuff other people tell him to do, for various political reasons it would take weeks to explain in full”). I stopped listening, eventually – and I’m one of those who never skips cutscene and reads all the text files.

Black Flag, on the other hand, is always very clear about who you are and what you’re doing. Edward Kenway doesn’t have any personal revenge to enact; he just wants to get rich and not be told what to do. Nowadays he’d probably go into hip-hop but being a pirate is considerably more badass. Everything Kenway does is in line with his character, and eloquently explained to the player; the cutscenes and dialogue are mercifully short and clear. There’s none of the dissonance of “I am a badass pirate, why am I fetching somebody’s gloves?” and every question of “Why are we doing this, again?” boils down to “Because Edward wants something and this is directly making it happen”.

It helps that Edward, a black-hearted, sinning, thieving murderer, is extremely likeable and relatable. He doesn’t have Ezio’s charm or Connor’s angry dignity; what he has, from other characters, is well-earned respect. He’s a man to be feared, obeyed, and worked alongside with. It’s easy to enjoy being him. His pirate colleagues are a likeable bunch, too; Ubisoft has sensibly kept the core cast small, so you aren’t showered with names and faces, and because most of them are pirates it’s easy to tell them apart (the one with the black beard is Blackbeard, and the one that looks like a kid is James Kidd, and so on) because everyone has a terrific jacket. The voice acting’s quite superb, too.

An open world full of delightful nooks and crannies; a plot that takes no prisoners as it bustles ever forwards; and vastly improved technical execution. There really is a lot to love in Assassin’s Creed 4, and I intend to find all of it.

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34 Comments

  1. unacomn

    Uuugh, I wish my order would get here already so I could play it.

    Pro tip: Don’t order a new game during a store’s Black Friday sale, you’ll wait for days and days and days and days.

    On the plus side, it’s about 40% cheaper than Steam, because Ubisoft actually understands that people have much lower income in Eastern Europe.

    #1 9 months ago
  2. Sadismek

    @1 That’s exactly what happened to me as well! Stupid me decided to order this in the last days until Black Friday, and now I’m told to wait. Bummer.

    Where do you live, by the way? Your story is awfully similar to mine, even the Eastern Europe part.

    #2 9 months ago
  3. tenthousandgothsonacid

    Sold ! I’m in Brenna.

    #3 9 months ago
  4. Animeboy413

    Happy Thanksgiving, Brenna :)

    #4 9 months ago
  5. Bomba Luigi

    Its kinda too late for me. AC4 is the first main AC Game I didn’t buy Day 1. I don’t think its bad, not at all, I’m just tired of AC. I have enough.

    The only Chance it has is a Steam Sale where I can get for 2 Bucks or so. Because I’m really very, very tired. I’m sure its great but that doesn’t help.

    #5 9 months ago
  6. ddtd

    Am I really in the minority for liking AC3′s story? Yeah, it was sloppily put together, the pacing of the missions was awful and the jumps in time hard to follow, but the overall idea–that the war between the Templars and the Assassins isn’t black-and-white, and not all of the Templars are evil–was a refreshing change.

    I think if they spent more time fine tuning the story and it’s structure (and the overall gameplay which was the worst–barring the changes to the free running–in the series) it would have been a stand out game in the series

    #6 9 months ago
  7. Phoenixblight

    THis is the first Assassins Cree where I have gotten past the 5th sequence not to mention the hours I have put in just doing the side missions. I have put in at least 20 hours just going around boarding ships to upgrade my boat. I absolutely love this game. I am really glad I bought it with my PS4.

    #7 9 months ago
  8. ddtd

    @5 – I really recommend AC4. It doesn’t feel like more of the same. In fact, they could have stripped out all the Assassin stuff and turned this into a stand-alone pirate game and it would have been just as good. The naval combat is amazing.

    #8 9 months ago
  9. mistermogul

    Looking forward to getting this early next year with my PS4!

    #9 9 months ago
  10. bradk825

    @6 I liked it except for the way they casually downplayed Desmond and fucked up his ending, and then admitted they did it intentionally because many players were tired of him. The story element of Desmond being the main character bringing these generations together was my favourite part of the franchise, and then they intentionally fucked that up in the end. That’s the only part where they lost me. The historical story was once again very interesting, and I found some of the controls a little dumbed down but it was playable…

    #10 9 months ago
  11. Patrick Garratt

    It’s awesome! Playing it loads at the moment.

    #11 9 months ago
  12. unacomn

    @2 The eternally fascinating(often for the wrong reasons) Romania.

    #12 9 months ago
  13. Dave Cook

    @12 “it’s recycled as per usual”

    Total nonsense.

    #13 9 months ago
  14. Phoenixblight

    @10

    Funny because I absolutely hated Desmond part and would hurry through them to get to the actual game.

    #14 9 months ago
  15. Cobra951

    “I’m happy to call it the best Assassin’s Creed game since the first sequel, and even Pat likes it.”

    Sold! I must say I’m pleasantly surprised. I thought Ubi had irreversibly lost their way with Revelations and 3. I’m elated they found it again. Assuming the Xbox 360 version is worthy (will keep an eye on reviews) this is a buy for me. Thanks, Brenna.

    #15 9 months ago
  16. fearmonkey

    I have always wanted to love the AC series but never really got heavy into it. I always ran into some game killing bug on the Xbox 360 for AC1 and AC2, bought Brothrhood on Steam but never played and skipped Revelations. I got AC III for christmas last year and never finished it was well.

    So I got AC:IV as a rental from Gamefly and it’s easily the best AC I have played yet. I really enjoy playing, and the Sea battles and play is gorgeous and fun. The only thing I would say is that they should totally drop the AC moniker and just make an actual Pirate game. I felt that the modern times parts felt placed in and didnt really fit the game like it did in earlier AC games. I think they would have had an even better game if they just made it about pirates.

    #16 9 months ago
  17. Legendaryboss

    @16
    That my friend is the difference between playing and watching.

    #17 9 months ago
  18. bradk825

    @15 Yeah I get that everyone had different likes and dislikes and they weren’t lying when they said a lot of players didn’t like dealing with Desmond. I just wish they came up with a way to satisfy you without shafting me, that’s all. Know what I mean?

    #18 9 months ago
  19. monkeygourmet

    @19

    To be fair, I completely see where @noamlol2 is coming from. It’s mention is then brushed aside with positivity so I can’t help but feel that Dave’s being slightly swift tempered! :)

    This game was built off the back of the sailing and hunting / open world sections of AC3 (the devs have even said this), so recycling is a fair word to use I think. I can see why though, it must be hard churning out an open world game or two every year.

    #19 9 months ago
  20. Dragon

    ” i’ve looked into an entire playthrough of this game ”

    “the combat is still easy”

    So you found out combat was easy just by seeing the game.
    I don’t know what to say about that great ability you have, so have a +1.

    #20 9 months ago
  21. ddtd

    @10 – I agree. They really messed up on the present day arch.

    #21 9 months ago
  22. Joe Musashi

    There’s no disputing that parts of [latest franchise installment] recycles aspect of [earlier franchise installment]. That’s part and parcel of the nature of franchises. The original appealed and so people want more of that appeal in a future installment. I don’t think it’s something that’s exclusive to games, other mediums do much the same. And there’s really no issue.

    I’m not really into FPS games. Is the next COD an awful lot like the last one? I expect so.

    The cost of launching a new IP is phenomenal and no dev/pub is going to invest without seeing how they can make the best ROI. Assets will be re-used. It’s not a crime.

    Sure, it could be argued AC4 is just ACx in a different skin. I think that’s dumbing things down a bit too far, but it’s more true than not.

    Having recently binged my way through AC3 and glanced at the first hour or so of AC4 there’s not too much to tell them apart. Although getting away from Boston’s muddy browns, deep reds, cloudy skys and snowy hunting grounds to encounter tropical seas, buildings bleached white in the sun and a, literally, lighter environment does rather feel like a breath of fresh air.

    By the time a game franchise has a 4 on the end of it, I think its time to set realistic expectations as to just how much it will differ from its forebears.

    JM

    #22 9 months ago
  23. Sadismek

    @13 Haha, me too! :D

    On-topic: I’m quite surprised you all praise AC IV so much, after so many thought this franchise is done for good after AC III :P. I’ve tried my best not to watch any videos and read little about it, so this should be fun… whenever it gets delivered to me, that is.

    I liked AC III, though, with all it’s flaws and it’d be quite sad if we don’t learn more about Connor, but I can’t wait to play as Edward. The naval battles in AC III were really meaty – a game built around that, that’s actually better? Count me in.

    #23 9 months ago
  24. Exzeerex

    AC4 is definitely better than AC3, but the story is weak. Gameplay is fun with lots of variation. Edward just seems so ignorant and only after a bit of coin being the only motive.. Where previous protagonists where a lot more humble and put together. Also a quite random way of becoming an Assassin I must say.
    Here’s my personal rank of the franchise.
    1. AC2
    2. Brotherhood
    3. Revelations
    4. AC1
    5. AC4
    6. AC3

    I hate the naval missions. I wanna climb damn it! Not sail. They could call it Pirate’s Creed: Yarr’gh Edition for all I care lol. The fast travel does save a lot of time sailing though.

    EDIT: Btw, Ubisoft already said they’re not gonna continue the Kenway story. So expect a new setting and unrelated characters in the next one.

    #24 9 months ago
  25. lolatfanboys

    it´s still so easy a 5 year old could play it without any problem. I´m sad cause I love the Pirate on the seas stuff, but no with that combat system :(

    #25 9 months ago
  26. YoungZer0

    I don’t think you can actually say that it’s not recycled. That’s what the entire series is all about. They started with something new and different and just kept adding more and more stuff to it, some of it good, some of it really really bad.

    AC4 has most of the good part, but if anything the game proved to me that they need to let go of the old systems and start from scratch. I was watching some combat footage from the first AC and was wondering what exactly happened to the series. It looked so fluid, bug-free and optimized, compared to what we got now. Can’t even finish one battle in AC4 without something going wrong.

    What impressed me the most about the game is how uninteresting the actual story was, yet still engaged me to complete it. I liked that Edward wasn’t motivated to fiddle with the assassins. That was refreshing.

    They screwed it up by having him eventually hunt all the Templars. If he doesn’t care about the Assassins, why would he care about the Templars? He said that he saw what the Templars did and what they wanted for the world, but I somehow doubt that. In the end he was just another puppet. Following orders because the assassins told him to.

    Black Flag would’ve been a much better game if it wasn’t an AC game.

    @26: “EDIT: Btw, Ubisoft already said they’re not gonna continue the Kenway story. So expect a new setting and unrelated characters in the next one.”

    I really hope the next AC will have multiple heroes and settings. That would be awesome.

    #26 9 months ago
  27. Phoenixblight

    @28

    ” I was watching some combat footage from the first AC and was wondering what exactly happened to the series. It looked so fluid, bug-free and optimized, compared to what we got now.”

    I laughed. The game was horribly bugged and the combat was even easier to exploit then it is now. I remember pulling the entire town of guards and beating them all with just counter attacks. No weapons just counter attacks.

    Not to mention if you wanted to combo attacks together it was horribly broken so the game practically forced you to just counter attack.

    #27 9 months ago
  28. YoungZer0

    … okay, guess you missed the entire point of the sentence you quoted.

    #28 9 months ago
  29. Erthazus

    It is recycled at some point from Assassins Creed 3. But that’s not really a big complain because game has good art and graphics. It looks nice. Good water effects, nice Anti-Aliasing in the game, great lightning. Great GRASS. FINALLY, Grass and bushes in the game that don’t look like shit. Hello, Next gen. Lol.

    But gameplay is so freakin average that blergh… I can’t take it anymore. Battles are retarded and easy as always. AI is the worst in the industry and parkour mechanics are not on par with other games like inFamous or Super Mario Bros (if you can compare them of course).
    The story is also not really good. It has a lot of holes in the plot. Small example: At the start you have your own ship and behind it you can see that it’s name is Jackdaw already.

    Edward Kenway at some point says: Hmm, I think I will call it “Jackdaw”

    WTF?

    Or how after wearing a suit he becomes a true Assassin and use’s blades like a true experienced assassin… That breaks immersion.
    It’s not a bad game. Can’t recommend it to anyone except for Assassin’s Creed fans.

    P.S. I think the real reason behind poor mechanics is because a lot of studios make this game. Story is not on par with art-style and gameplay is not on par with everything else. Everything looks like made by different staff.
    I gave example with a Jackdaw name when Ship had a name and Edward mentions about a new name after some time.

    #29 9 months ago
  30. steph123

    I love this game. Even the glitches are amazing!!
    http://youtu.be/yLieXvzuIwQ

    #30 9 months ago
  31. Kuwabara

    I have yet to play AC4, but i guess i must be in the minority that actually enjoyed AC3. Probably my favourite. Not because of the story, but because of the naval missions and open wilderness, and the unique stealth approaches and possibilities the game offered. It presented stealth/combat in a way metal gear and hitman hadn’t done before. was very satisfying. I just wish the story was longer.

    #31 9 months ago
  32. ctankep

    @14

    Th’ whole game is recycled mechanics & assets from previous games.
    When you get to Havana you’ll notice th’ courteasans ., people milling
    about are copy -paste from “AC 2″ verbatim without any changes to
    th’ character models.

    Similarly th’ buildings ., rooftop sections ., ledge bits are all copy -paste
    from “AC2″ as well. You even have th’ same conveniently placed haystacks
    located on rooftops. I didn’t play all th’ spin offs so they may have been
    carried over from “Brotherhood” or “Revelations” as well. Th’ missions
    are still exactly th’ same too: basically fetch & follow quests. At least
    “AC3″ was aware o’ these crutches an’ tried to mix it up.

    -

    Th’ most redeeming thing about “AC4″ might be th’ sailing.
    But then that’s totally fuck _d up too since there’s no wind simulation.
    Even Sid Meier’s 8 -bit “Pirates” had changing wind conditions which
    would affect how you traversed around islands.

    You just point in a direction like a motorboat an’ worse still in combat
    Ubisoft dumb _d things down so that positioning doesn’t matter. You
    can fire 360 degrees [ even through your own ship ] instead o’ trying
    to get into position for a broadside. Otherwise it takes enemies 10 -12
    shots to sink you while you destroy them in 1 -2 shots.

    Disappointingly there’s no damage model to th’ ships either.
    Well perhaps because there is no ship simulation but still it would have
    been good to have strategy from “Sea Dogs” in being able to target
    enemy sails or cannons. Smaller ships could then disable larger galleons
    with maneouverability an’ careful aiming.

    But no this game is just all suger an’ no cocoa –
    While th’ setting is nice [ sans invisible walls in th' ocean ] there’s so
    much that’s awful in th’ actual mechanics & interactions that I feel
    reviewers have glossed over quick to hand out 8′s -9′s for a quite broken
    game that’s nothing more than a massive ., meaningless collectathon.
    BTW “Pirates” got all these things right on an 8 -bit computer with
    64 KB memory. “AC4″ not so much.

    #32 9 months ago
  33. ctankep

    @8

    So what’s amazing about th’ naval combat.
    How it looks or how it actually plays ..?!

    #33 9 months ago
  34. hepworth99

    My Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag blog post at http://best-products-out-now.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/assassins-creed-4-blackflag-review.html.

    #34 8 months ago

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